The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends
, August 1st, 2012 07:52
It pains me to slate an album by a band I love, but needs must; The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends is a flatulent folly, humming with the sulphurous reek of self-indulgence. Much like that sentence, you might add, but bear with me.
The F'Lips' 2009 album Embryonic was the sound of a band re-energised, adding a heady dose of krautrock and electric Miles Davis to their classic formula of huge drums, fuzzy guitars and bubblegum psych. Their plan to release a new track for every month of 2011 was intriguing, suggesting a return to the mad-scientist experimentation of the Zaireeka era. The first fruit, 'Two Blobs Fucking', was rather ingenious and fun: a squelchy noise concerto for twelve synchronised YouTube videos. Seeing Wayne Coyne tear up The Big Book of Major Label Marketing Strategy and toss the scattered pages in glitter and jelly was a gas. As ludicrous acts of consumerist decadence go, manufacturing a cannabis-flavoured gummy skull containing a flash drive full of music takes some beating.
But amidst all the hoopla of Coyne's zany ploys, something important was being overlooked; the music. At first I could forgive the ho-hum jazz-rock sketches and laptop doodles. The next one will be better, I would tell myself, only to be disappointed. While the Boom Box Experiments and multi-speaker extravaganza of Zaireeka were conceptually sound and sonically thrilling, these latest stunts looked like empty spectacles. Coyne seemed addicted to the meme narcotic, dragging himself through the web at dawn looking for a retweet fix. This culminated in his Twitter spat with Erykah Badu, an unedifying episode which has tainted the whole enterprise.
Initially released for Record Store Day, the cloyingly titled Heady Fwends draws on their collaborative EPs of the past year or so. Coyne has talked with winning enthusiasm about the opportunities created by the internet, how it allows him to make music with people he hasn't even met. There's nothing inherently wrong with making music by file swapping, but it is hard to recreate the chemistry and spontaneity that results from collaborating in person. Embryonic rocked 'cos it was fundamentally the sound of a band jamming the fuck out. The studio wizardry was just extra psychedelic gravy. One of Heady Fwends' fatal flaws is the absence of the group dynamics which make even a highly constructed record like The Soft Bulletin sound, and feel, so good.
In his 1990 tome Rock and the Pop Narcotic, American critic Joe Carducci argues that rock's essence resides not in songs and story-telling, but in riffs and rhythm. In Simon Reynolds' gloss, Carducci asserts that rock's "unique epiphany is when four or five players come together on the One, creating 'multidimensional simultaneity' a.k.a 'the jam': transcendence through collective toil, a perfect mesh of individual expression and unitary discipline". Carducci may be a conservative rockist with little time for electronic music, but his formal analysis of how music actually works is illuminating and widely applicable. As Reynolds puts it, Carducci argues that "music's meaning, its 'spirituality' happen[s] through the [its] kinesthetics. It's the frictional interaction of riff and rhythm, tension and release, that signifies."
“This is noise-rock” commented the LA Times' reviewer of Heady Fwends, as if that means any old mess will do. But successful noise-rock thrives on the kind of multi-dimensional simultaneity Carducci describes, the players writhing in ecstasy as they grapple with chaos. All the guitar noise and digi-jizz splattered across the tracks here signify nothing, because they create so little tension or excitement. And to think it could have been so different. The collaboration with Lightning Bolt promised so much, not least the prospect of three great drummers going head to head. But instead of getting together in the studio with Messrs Chippendale and Gibson, the Flips build a track around some sound files. What you get is a wistful, but underdeveloped, acoustic strum in the key of Bowie's 'Space Oddity', spliced with a momentarily arresting Lightning Bolt fragment. An opportunity missed.
There are far too many of these meandering, half-written dirges here. 'Ashes In The Air', with its synth wooze and wonky 'Sound and Vision' harmonies is a pale echo of Justin 'Bon Iver' Vernon's contributions to Gayng's Relayted, a far superior excursion into synthetic cosmo-soul. On the questionably titled 'Helping the Retarded to Know God', recorded with rusticated chancers Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, the Flips seem to be going for a blissed-out psychedelic folk vibe, but it sounds so enervated, the melody a weak trickle from a shallow pool. The cover of Ewan MacColl's 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' strives for cosmic profundity, but it's such a plod, the slo-mo space rock arrangement lacking the oceanic sensuality Erykah Badu's tender vocal is crying out for.
The heavier stuff is just leaden. No amount of boutique fuzz pedals and squeaking electronic gizmos can make up for the paucity of ideas. 'Supermoon Made Me Want To Pee' sounds like an Embyronic outtake, with Prefuse 73 sculpting a one note bassline and some torrential drum breaks into one of the album's more coherent tracks. If only they'd given him some decent riffs or tunes to work with. Elsewhere, the band fall back on past glories. On 'That Ain't My Trip' they raid the Soft Bulletin for tubular bells and Wagnerian chorales in the hope they might make the galumphing fuzz bass riffs sound less monotonous. Nick Cave's self-parodic preacher man schtick brings a necessary shot of adrenalin to 'You, Man? Human???' but his corybantic mania can't save the clunking track. Grafting the bassline from The Stooges' '1969', onto the auto-tuned robo-rock of their Ke$ha collaboration, '2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)', fails to make it any less obnoxious.
The album is littered with self-consciously druggy imagery, as if to convince us of how tripped out and freaky it is. It's like, no way dude, you're taking acid at NASA? That's frickin' wild! And you're getting fucked up? And not the good kind of fucked up? Woah man, heavy. It's all rather forced. The Flips have always dealt in science-fiction, but Coyne's references here to robot dogs and diuretic satellites seem lazy, entirely lacking the emotional resonance of Yoshimi's robot battles, or the scientists' attempts to save mankind from a devastating virus in 'Race for the Prize'.
Perhaps it's unfair to heap opprobrium on what is obviously a stop-gap release, but the Flaming Lips' inability to build on the momentum of Embryonic is frustrating. As a disbelieving Greil Marcus famously wrote of Bob Dylan's 1970 gallimaufry Self Portrait, "what is this shit?" To that I might add a paternalistic "sort yourselves out".